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Espying the tree of life in steel city

Life affirming: The baobab tree in Jamshedpur.

Life affirming: The baobab tree in Jamshedpur.   | Photo Credit: Vijaya Bharat

The baobab stood there with bare branches, its historic significance lost

How will one see a zebra among cows in an Indian city? With surprise and curiosity. I was similarly wonder-struck seeing a big fat tree with bare branches in lush green Jamshedpur. Never had it been counted among the steel city’s flora.

I matched it with the image of a baobab in the movie Lion King and in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince. It was indeed a baobab (pronounced beyobaab), or Adansonia digitata, and I came to know that there are approximately 50 of them in India, mostly along the western coast and the central parts. I also learned that the tall columnar baobab (Adansonia grandidiere) shown in the movie Madagascar is mostly limited to that island.

How did an African tree find its way to India? The presence of native baobab trees in Africa, Madagascar and faraway Australia is attributed to the breaking up of Pangaea, the super-continent, 200 million years ago.

Indian tryst

Oceanic dispersal was long held responsible for the introduction of the tree in India and a few other tropical countries. Baobab researchers Bell KL, et al genetically mapped baobab trees in southeast Asia and Africa and applied their findings to historic events of human traffic between the continents. They inferred that baobabs were introduced into India at multiple instances extending from the 15th to 19th centuries, initially by Arabs traders and Mughal invaders and later by Portuguese, Dutch, British and French colonists.

The invaders had captive African men in their workforce who carried baobab fruits as an emergency source of nutrition and aided dispersal of the seeds.

From December to May, the tree has bare branches with a few fruits dangling like rats by their tails. New leaves sprout in June and a few large white flowers lie hidden in the dense canopy. The night-blooming flowers, pollinated by bats, turn into olive green gourd-like fruits, which are hailed as the ultimate super-fruit with 10 times more vitamin C than orange and many minerals.

A baobab can survive for thousands of years in the most arid conditions. The succulent trunk can hold a huge store of water. Radiocarbon dating has identified baobabs as old as 2,450 years. The Little Prince in the French novella feared that baobabs would overpopulate and explode the planet. In reality, Mother Nature maintains a balance between birth and death.

If the tree in my city could talk, I would sit under it, lean on its trunk, and listen to its tales of travel and trade, maharajahs, the Mughals and colonial sahebs and brave men who put up a steel plant in the jungles of Mayurbanj.

Dr. Bharat is the author of the book Flowering Trees of Jamshedpur

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 5:29:15 PM |

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